Have you ever wondered why people are always saying that technology in China is so advanced?
Whenever I go back home, the topic of technology in China always comes up. However, in reality, it’s hard to give people a comprehensive picture of how the tech ecosystem is evolving here in just fifteen minutes.
In such conversations, the most I can mention is food delivery service and WeChat. That’s a good start, but really only the tip of the iceberg.
After some deep thought, I have decided that the most obvious difference between technology in the US and in China is how much more use Chinese are getting out of their smartphones.
My App List
The reason that Chinese love using their smartphones is the incredible amount of useful apps. What kind of apps, you ask?
In order to answer this question I will use myself as an example. As I have written in previous blog posts, my own consumer habits are actually quite similar to Chinese in a lot of ways as I have live and worked in Beijing for a number of years now.
To show you how I use apps I made a list of the most useful apps that I am using now (I use an iPhone 6). I would say that about half of the apps were created by Chinese developers and the other half by Western developers.
While I am not Chinese, this list should give you a better understanding of what is useful right now in China. You will still see that I have a lot of western apps, and that can give your insight about what the China app market has not been able to replace for me.
OK, so here it is.
- JD.com and Taobao (京东，淘宝). Two apps for the largest e-commerce stores in China. I often do the product research on my computer and then add them into my cart. After I can pay using my phone seamlessly through WeChat or Alipay.
- WeChat (微信). This is the social network in China and has been the subject of attention since I moved to China in 2013 (coincidentally about the same time that it was launched). WeChat is an entire ecosystem in its own right. Most notable of which is it’s payment system which you can use to send money to your friends or buy things.
- QQ. I have it but don’t often log in on my mobile. This is because I use it mostly with my colleagues at work and don’t want to be getting notifications 24/7.
- Meituan and Eleme (美团，饿了吗). These are the two food delivery apps that I use. Recently I haven’t used these as much as they actually make it too easy to not cook for myself, and I have been trying to get back into cooking for myself. Baidu Waimai is another popular food delivery service.
- QQ music. You can stream everything for free and there selection is quite decent, although I can’t get the really weird amateur stuff I like to listen to on youtube. I believe now you can pay for a membership to download certain artists permanently, but I just stream the free version.
- Air Visual and apple weather system. Air visual is good because air pollution is such a major issue in Beijing. I use it to know if I can go on my nightly runs or if I should turn on my air filters.
- Ctrip (携程). China’s most popular travel service app. It’s slightly more expensive than Skyscanner, but it’s incredibly reliable and has good customer service. Plus I already entered all of my information, so buying airplane and train tickets is very simple. I don’t use it for book hotels though. For some reason I still feel like a regular desktop is better for that.
- Tinder and Tantan. The first one is for western girls or Chinese girls that have studied abroad. The second one is for Chinese girls. I have had better luck with Tan Tan.
- Pleco. The best Chinese dictionary with many other built in services. I highly recommend this to anyone who is studying Chinese. Very popular in the expat community.
- Memrise. A good flashcard app that already has a lot of stuff preloaded. Perhaps the best feature is that you can practice both on your desktop and on your phone. I will note that Pleco has a good flashcard system that I am currently in the process of trying out.
- Baidu Translate and Youdao Fanyi （百度翻译，有道词典）. For when you need to understand something complex in Chinese and you don’t have time to look at it piecemeal. Baidu has an amazing camera feature which lets me take a picture and then highlight the areas I want to translate.
- Apple Calculator, Apple Sheets, and XE currency exchange. I use these three in combination to manage my daily budget. I should note that the first two come pre-installed on apple phones. I have a lot of banking apps, but I don’t really use them. I guess I still prefer a larger screen for that.
- Ayi Bang (阿姨帮). This is an app which lets you order maids to your home as well as many other services. In China, these types of services are very affordable (now about 5 USD per hour). I don’t really like using maids for a number of reasons, but when I have wanted to try it out in the past I have used this app. I particularly enjoyed the ratings and review feature for different Ayi profiles.
- Skimble. A workout app recommended to me by a friend which I use for my no-gym workouts. It was weird using it at first, but I have gotten used to it and found the different exercise programs very useful.
- Adobe Lightroom. A good app for editing photos. Although I also find that Instagram’s photo editing features are definitely competitive with it. Still, Lightroom has some good filters you can’t find on Instagram.
- Apple podcast marketplace. I have just recently been getting into listening to podcasts, so I have yet to try out Overcast, but I heard that it’s pretty good too. Overall I am pretty psyched about this as podcasts have a lot of interesting content.
- Express VPN and Betternet VPN. You need a VPN to access western sites behind the Chinese government’s firewall. Express is a paid service and Betternet is free (although I have been slightly more hesitant to use betternet recently as I am a little confused about how it is generating revenue…).
There you have it. I originally only wanted to write the top three but then it ballooned out into this. Perhaps that should tell you something about how useful apps are in China.
The popularity of cellphones in China
It would be irresponsible of me to bring up the topic of smartphones and why they are so popular in China without writing a little bit about the underpinning of their popularity.
The typical Chinese consumer is very open to new technology. This is because they have had a kind of mouth-on-the-fire-hose type of situation for the past couple of decades, rather than the, say “britta water filter”, of the West. This has encouraged Chinese to be open to new technology and use apps more than most in the West who still prefer using computers.
The rise of mobile payments in China is also a considerable factor. Alipay and WeChat are the two main competitors. In most shops you can simply use your phone to pay for things. This makes in app purchases very convenient.
Finally, it should be mentioned that people don’t buy apps in China. Rather, businesses give them away in hopes to increase their sales or promote various products. This encourages people to try out new apps as there is little risk for the customer.
This list of apps should not only provide proof of just how useful apps are in China, but also give people who are interested in the country some ideas of what people are using today.
Of course, a big part of using the apps is that you need to have a working knowledge of Chinese. I have a few friends that don’t read Chinese, but still get by knowing the icons and what not. It is recommended to learn some basic Chinese as it will help you to understand each interface more.